As the air war continues, Malloy and Lamont pick up their ground game

WATERBURY–Dan Malloy caromed Sunday through an Italian festival in Waterbury, flattering the cooks, teasing the customers, offering his hand. Then moving on. Always moving, moving, moving.

“You don’t stop until it’s over,” Malloy said, striding toward his rented RV. “Not leaving any stone unturned. Even without money, we’re not leaving any stone unturned. We can still buy gas for the car, you know.”

With a new poll Monday showing he has closed to within to 3 percentage points, Malloy is trying to score a come-from-behind win Tuesday in a Democratic gubernatorial primary. Outspent in the air, he claims to be outhustling his wealthier rival, Ned Lamont, on the ground.

Malloy-Italian festival

Dan Malloy campaigning in Waterbury. (Mark Pazniokas)

Lamont spent nearly $1.3 million on television advertising last week, bringing his total television buy to about $5 million. Malloy spent $50,000, bringing his TV total to just under $2 million.

The Democrats have bludgeoned each other with negative ads, many of which have relied on hyperbole, innuendo and misleading statements.  Malloy fired the first shot at Lamont’s business record, but Lamont hit back hard at Malloy’s integrity.

One of Lamont’s recent commercials shows a man peeking through the bushes at Malloy’s home, valued at about $2 million. He wonders aloud how Malloy could have afforded it on a mayor’s salary.

Malloy’s relationship with the contractors who renovated his home, some of whom later obtained city contracts, was the target of a criminal investigation in 2005. He was exonerated of wrongdoing.

“It’s supposed to make people smile a little bit, make you think about a career politician, just change the tone with a few days to go,” Lamont said. He called it “a little more quirky.”

It did not make Malloy smile.

“I don’t think there’s anything quirky of light about what they did,” Malloy said. “I think it’s a sign of the desperation in their campaign.”

On a telephone town hall Sunday night, Lamont faced a question about one of Malloy’s commercials, which described Lamont as opposed to sick days for workers.

“That’s not true at all,” said Lamont, who says that his company provides eight paid personal days, which can be used for sick time.

Lamont does oppose a state law requiring that private employers provide paid sick days. No state in the nation has such a law, and Lamont says it would harm the state’s business environment. He favors a federal bill mandating paid sick days.

For Malloy and Lamont, it is the second time in four years they are trying to pull Democratic voters back from the beach to vote in an August election, this time for a nominee to succeed Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

In 2006, Malloy’s gubernatorial primary with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano was overshadowed by Lamont’s challenge of U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a nationally watched referendum on the war in Iraq.

Without a wedge issue like the war in Iraq, the contest between Lamont and Malloy has focused more on personal narratives than issues.

Malloy’s one-minute pitch: He grew up with severe learning disabilities, the youngest of eight children in a middle-class family, became a lawyer and then was mayor of Stamford for 14 years.

Lamont emphasizes his background as the founder of Lamont Digital, a cable-television company, and the independence he displayed in taking on a three-term senator four years ago. Borrowing a line from Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a supporter, he says he is “nobody’s man but yours.”

Polls of likely Democratic voters show a close race, though Democrats by a wider margin say they consider Lamont as their best chance to win in November.

“I think it’s not a great time to be a party insider and a career politician,” Lamont said.

Lamont-Hartford festival

Ned Lamont at a festival in Hartford. (Mark Pazniokas)

Malloy increasingly has attempted to use Lamont’s money against him.  He is relying on $250,000 in contributions and $2.5 million in public financing, while Lamont had raised $9.1 million as of Aug. 4, all but $500,000 coming from his own pocket.

“I don’t have $10 million. We had $2.5 million,” Malloy said. “But I don’t think anybody outworked me, and I don’t think anyone is capable of outworking me. I’ve tried to make up for the monetary deficit.”

Malloy said the retail politics he practiced Sunday at the Festa Di San Donato in Waterbury still has value.

“In a close election, it’s all the difference in the world,” Malloy said.

Lamont was at the same Italian festival the night before with his wife, Annie. So was Malloy.

The two Democrats also crossed paths Saturday afternoon on Riverfront Plaza in Hartford at “The Caribbean Jerk Festival,” a celebration of a Jamaican style of cooking, not the obnoxious and ill-mannered.

Sitting in the shade of a locust tree, Paulette McCurdy of West Hartford shook Malloy’s hand and promised to vote for him – on one condition.

“Don’t call any more,” she said. “As of yesterday, it was about eight calls. That’s enough.”

Malloy laughed.

As he left, Lamont arrived, shaking some of the same hands.

Under the same locust tree, he flopped on the grass to pose for a picture with a woman and her baby.

He did a double-take when he saw a young man with Lamont and Malloy stickers.

“You gotta make up your mind,” Lamont said.

“They stuck it on me,” the man replied.

On Sunday, Lamont mixed campaigning over breakfast with his wife and three children at Mo’s Midtown in the West End of Hartford, before he attended services at the First Cathedral in Bloomfield and then marched in the VJ-Day anniversary parade in Moosup, on the Rhode Island border.

At Mo’s, his family took a booth, while Lamont introduced himself to diners. One young man smiled and said, “I remember you. You ran for Senate.”